Remembering the 1998 Atlanta Falcons

Anthony HammettCorrespondent IMay 26, 2009

The photo shows a team in disgust. For most Falcon fans, that is not what we remember.

It's hard to believe it has been 11 years since the Falcons last made a run through the playoffs and to the Super Bowl.

"Since" may be the wrong word to use. "Only" would be the word that could be used here. But only was enough for just one season for all Falcon fans to believe.

Jamal Anderson was taking over the full-time load that Craig Heyward had fulfilled. Chris Chandler was signed from Houston to be the starting quarterback. Tony Martin was brought in as an extra target to go alongside Terrance Mathis.

Ray Buchanan was the standout cornerback. Jessie Tuggle had been a Falcon for life and manned the defense overall. Eugene Robinson brought veteran leadership to the secondary (until the night before the Super Bowl).

The Falcons had a lot to build on, but no one saw their 1998 run through the NFC coming.

You can thank Denver and Minnesota for that.

It had appeared destined that the Vikings and Broncos would meet in the Super Bowl. Randy Moss had emerged in Minnesota and Randall Cunningham was better than ever. Minnesota and Denver controlled all of the playoff talk through the regular season.

Meanwhile, Atlanta flew under the radar. I find it hard to believe that a team can go 14-2 and go unnoticed, but Atlanta pretty much did.

Atlanta got off to a fast 2-0 start before going on the road against San Francisco. Nothing seemed to go right for the Falcons on that day, and the Niners walked away with the victory.

Something in that loss woke the Falcons up.

They won their next three games to get to 5-1, before losing to the Jets. They would not lose again until the Super Bowl.

The most memorable win for me that season had to be a week in New England where Atlanta beat the Patriots 41-10. It was at that moment that I realized how good Jamal Anderson was and that the Falcons were no joke.

Dirty Bird Fever had taken over.

The Falcons avenged an earlier loss to San Francisco during the regular season to tie the season series at 1-1. The matchup was set for the division round of the playoffs. San Francisco at Atlanta.

As a 15-year-old kid addicted to sports, I was in heaven. I had never felt this feeling before.

Every single season I had to deal with all of my friends bragging about how good their Cowboys were, or how good the 49ers were, or how good the Broncos were.

It was finally my turn. I didn't know how to react. I was used to home games being blacked out. I have lived in Georgia all my life, and if games don't sell out in the NFL, the home market gets blacked out.

At that time, I didn't understand the blackout rule, so I just assumed since it was a home game that I would have to catch the highlights. I'm glad that it did not result to that.

The rest is history. The Falcons found a way in the final seconds to squeak by San Francisco 20-18 and advance to the next round against Minnesota, thanks to Terrance Mathis' HUGE touchdown catch against the 49ers.

The close win might've done even more to help Atlanta go unnoticed. The Vikings had all but reserved their plane tickets to Miami. The champagne was on ice in the Metrodome and all that was left to do was pop the cork.

But, as the old saying goes, "That's why we play the game".

The first half looked hopeless. The Vikings had a double-digit lead in the second half. It would take a miracle for Atlanta to get back in it.

A drive at the end of the third quarter or the beginning of the fourth (I can't remember the exact time) was saved on a few crucial third down conversions until Atlanta finally reached the red zone.

Chandler threw a pass into the end zone between double coverage and hit Mathis on one knee. Touchdown Falcons. They made it a one-possession game.

Later in the game, Gary Anderson missed a field goal that would've made it a two possession game. He had not missed a kick all year. There goes the miracle I was hoping for.

But where there is a will, there is a way. The Falcons managed to tie the game and sent it into overtime. Unfortunately, Minnesota would touch the ball.

The biggest play of the entire season had to be on an incomplete pass. Cunningham dropped back in the pocket and flung the ball at least 50 yards down the field to Randy Moss on a 9-route (straight down the field).

Eugene Robinson was the safety coming over the top to help the corner. Buchanan had been beaten bad on the play by Moss so it was up to Robinson.

At the very last second, he leaped when Moss leaped and got a fingertip on the ball and knocked it down. Instead of a first down in field goal range, the Vikings had to punt.

It was at that moment that my heart began to race. My palms started to sweat. I had to turn the TV off and leave the room and return every 20 seconds or so because I just couldn't bare to watch in between commercials.

Jeff Hullinger's words still ring in my ear to this day from the radio broadcast:

"The kick is up. He knows it. They know it. And The Falcons are going to the Super Bowl!"

Words cannot begin to describe how good of a feeling that is. I mean, sure, I'm not the towel boy. I didn't sit through all of the practices or study the films. But, I was with them. I gave them every Sunday and in return they tried to give me viewing pleasure.

Of course, all dreams must come to an end. One prostitute later for Eugene Robinson the night before a Super Bowl and all momentum was gone. Atlanta moved the ball on Denver okay, but choked every time they got near the red zone.

The only highlight for Atlanta in that Super Bowl was Tim Dwight returning a kickoff for a touchdown.

But that Falcons team will never be forgotten by Falcons fans who watched. They took us on a ride we hope to go on again someday, but it was needed more than ever around that moment.


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